You Only Get One Story

You Only Get One Story

On a beautiful spring day nine years ago, in an historic district of Salt Lake City, I was teaching an undergraduate business course at Westminster College. The students and I – most of whom were seniors – were having a conversation about careers. One student asked me, “Is there one piece of advice you’d give us based on your own experiences?” I thought about it for a minute and said, “You only get one story, so make it interesting.” When he gave me a perplexed look, I added, “You should pursue your dreams, but make sure you know yourself and use that knowledge to become a more conscious person and leader. Take risks – make them thoughtful – and most of all, remember you only get one story so live your life in such a way that when your grandchildren hear your story, you can make them blush. You don’t get any do-overs.”

Over the years I’ve done a lot of both coaching and mentoring – both formal and informal. My dad was a teacher before he turned to a business career and I always believed I have teaching in my DNA. During discussions with people about their aspirations at work, I start by asking them about the themes that define the story of their career. Typically, they respond with a regurgitation of their job titles and timeline. I tell them to go back to the timeline and examine the “why” behind each decision they made, and to find the common themes beneath those decisions. Identifying those themes is the key to answering the three questions everyone should reflect on and be able to answer with certainty:

  • Where do you find the most meaning and purpose in your work?
  • How will you stay relevant in the face of continuous change?
  • How can you make a difference that matters to more than just an audience of one? More recently, adding what will be your “small dent in the universe?” to quote the late Steve Jobs.
When I asked myself those questions seven years ago, the results were life changing. My answer to the first question emerged as I uncovered the themes that formed the narrative of my own 30+ year career: my passion for coaching and mentoring; a deep curiosity about why people do what they do (which has always been my source of energy for innovation and challenging the status quo); and my drive to create and build, versus maintain and manage. I found the answer to the third question in the joy of helping people through one of their most significant career transitions—moving, from individual contributor to people manager.

The second question was the toughest to answer because I had to set aside the ego and identity that comes with “I was CEO of this” and “I was a vice-president of that,” and see my career experiences for what they really were—a history on which I could build, not laurels on which I should rest. That shift in mindset gave me the courage and conviction to take a five-year ‘walkabout’ in the shoes of today’s team leaders, rather than following the traditional path to a senior leadership role. I also recognized that walkabout would only be truly valuable if I complemented it with a deeper understanding of the people who lead today’s teams. So, I took a deep dive into the fields of human motivation, employee engagement, and team effectiveness, earning a doctorate in the process. My investment in remaining relevant and keeping my story interesting has enabled me to pursue work in which I find purpose and social good as I inspire leaders to craft extraordinary teams. It has also enabled me to write books like Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams.

As careers and lives progress, we all face the questions of purpose, relevance, and legacy. I’ve found that people who are most conscious about answering those three questions tend to be more successful, happier, and enjoy greater well-being. They spend little time lamenting what could have been or laud the glory days that lay behind them. They are too busy writing interesting new chapters in their life story, being conscious every day that we only get one chance to write it. There are no do-overs.

This article is based upon excerpts from my new book, Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams

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